MEPS 204:93-100 (2000)  -  doi:10.3354/meps204093

Local variability but landscape stability in coral reef communities following repeated hurricane impacts

John C. Bythell1,*, Zandy M. Hillis-Starr2, Caroline S. Rogers3

1Centre for Tropical Coastal Management, Department of Marine Sciences & Coastal Management, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, United Kingdom
2Resource Management Specialist, US National Park Service, Buck Island Reef NM, 2100 Church Street, Kings Wharf 100, Christiansted, St. Croix 00820-4611, US Virgin Islands
3Biological Resources Division, US Geological Survey, PO Box 710, Virgin Islands National Park Field Station, St John 00831, US Virgin Islands

ABSTRACT: Coral reef community structure has remained remarkably stable over a 10 yr period within a small protected marine area despite repeated hurricane impacts. Local community dynamics have been highly variable, however. Sites that were destroyed by disease in the 1970s are showing little or no recovery, while sites less than a kilometre away that were devastated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 are recovering well. Strong coral recruitment has occurred in shallow, exposed areas that showed the greatest hurricane impacts, and these areas are now more species rich than in 1988, although coral cover has not reached pre-hurricane levels. Coral colony survivorship has been high throughout most of the study area. Partial mortality rates were elevated for several years following Hurricane Hugo, but significant whole coral-head mortality only occurred during periods with hurricane impacts and only at the most exposed sites. Overall, the coral community has proved resilient to closely repeated major hurricane impacts. From a single case study we cannot attribute this resilience to the relatively low level of human impacts, but grazing fish populations have apparently remained high enough to keep macroalgae in check despite the mass mortality of the herbivore Diadema antillarum in the 1980s.

KEY WORDS: Hurricane impacts · Disturbance · Coral reefs · Community dynamics

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